Changing Perspectives: Josh White ’16, George Park ’17 and Corey Guen ’17 in San Pedro, Belize Changing Perspectives
“Our hope is that Ambergris Caye becomes a yearly destination for Shepherd Interns and our respective communities can maintain a mutually beneficial relationship.”
Greetings from San Pedro, Belize!
Our Shepherd Internship has brought us to paradise, an island along the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef system, with sandy beaches, colorful buildings and pristine emerald water. Ambergris Caye is increasingly becoming a top tourist destination in the Caribbean, offering world-class diving, snorkeling and plenty of perfect spots to relax. Beneath the tourists’ paradise exterior, however, lies a forgotten community, passed over time and again by tourists and the government alike. This community is called San Mateo, and it resides over the bridge connecting the main town with the northern stretch of the island. Without reason, no tourist or expatriate ever enters San Mateo; the smell alone is enough to repel most curious visitors. See, the Belizean government grants land for free to citizens, and a community of very poor people were given the land that comprises San Mateo, on the condition that they build something on their plots. However, San Mateo wasn’t land at all—rather it was a lagoon surrounded by mangrove swamp. With nowhere else to live, the people built plywood shacks on stilts over the water, and rickety “London bridges” to reach their doors. With no money to afford sand or concrete, the residents had no choice but to begin throwing trash, seaweed and other waste into the water, hoping to build the waste up above the water line to create land. This terraforming process can be seen in varying stages of completion today; some houses—the lucky ones—have seaweed and sand covered lots. Others have cesspools filled with garbage, human waste and water that has been standing for years. Cholera, a disease contracted by ingesting water tainted with human waste, still exists here. Electricity, septic systems and running water are luxuries, and rarer still are systems that function consistently.
San Mateo is what brought us to the island. During a Spring Term 2014 class with Professor Casey, George Park and I were struck by the community, and resolved to return to do what we could. Adding Josh White to our team, we have spent the past month working with any organization entering the community. We work primarily with the San Pedro Food Bank, which serves the poorest families on the island. Most are headed by single women, who never finished high school and scrape by on less than $200 per week in income, if they are employed at all. They have many children and understand the value of educating them, but some simply can’t afford to do so.The food is handed out weekly, and much of our work revolves around fundraising to expand the roster of families we can serve and improving the quality of what we can give. We will spend the next few weeks organizing a major event to provide funds before the director leaves to travel.
We have also worked with the Red Cross on successful food and blood drives, and more importantly, the most comprehensive survey of San Mateo ever conducted. With a group from the School of Emergency Management and Homeland Security, we measured every single plot, took thousands of pictures and talked to every available family about their water, power and sewage.Through this work, we got to know the residents much better, and we discovered an overwhelmingly friendly people, hardworking and unwilling to let their living conditions break their spirit.
The data will represent the best and most expansive source of information about the vulnerabilities of the community, and can hopefully be applied in a number of useful respects. We hope to introduce Engineers Without Borders to the area, and Josh is already working with GenDev on setting up a microfinance project. Our hope is that Ambergris Caye becomes a yearly destination for Shepherd Interns and our respective communities can maintain a mutually beneficial relationship.
George Park and Corey Guen extend a special thanks to the Vernon Holleman Fellowship and the The Class of 1975 Shepherd Poverty Alliance Summer Internship Endowment, respectively, for providing the funding to make their trips possible.
More about George:
Hometown: Fairfax Station, VA
Majors: Economics and Business
Minor: Poverty and Human Capability Studies
Extracurricular Involvement: LEAD, Student Recruitment Committee, Sigma Chi Fraternity (philanthropy chair), Traveller
Off-Campus Experiences: Spring Term Abroad in Ambergris Caye, Belize; Summer abroad in Barcelona and Amsterdam (funded through the Johnson Scholarship summer stipend)
Why did you apply for this particular internship? I was inspired to apply for this particular internship after coming to Ambergris Caye last Spring for an Economics course taught by Professor Jim Casey. Our class spent some time volunteering at a local school and got a quick glimpse of the impoverished conditions in San Mateo, one of the local neighborhoods. After that, I really wanted to come back, especially because I felt as though the local community was being neglected. From conversations with locals, it seemed like the government was doing very little to help, and most people outside of the local community appeared to be oblivious to the poverty on the island. Although there are volunteers that do come to Ambergris, most of them come through church youth groups and focus their efforts primarily on the school. Doing this internship has given Josh, Corey, and I the opportunity to make an impact in so many different ways, whether it’s through bagging and distributing food every week for Raise Me Up (a local non-profit) and the San Pedro Food Bank, collecting data for the Red Cross, advising a local business, organizing a fundraiser, spending an afternoon picking up trash, or volunteering at an island blood drive.
How did your work apply to your studies at W&L? Though this internship does not necessarily have a direct application to my studies beyond the Poverty minor, I do think that this work experience has still been of tremendous educational value. The past five weeks have been a great lesson in being more independent and proactive. Before I arrived in Ambergris, I expected this experience to be much more structured. However, our internship has been pretty unique in that we do not have a consistent daily routine with people telling us what to do. In a way, this has proven to be a blessing in disguise. We find ourselves doing something different every day, and everything we have done has been the product of network building and actively searching for different ways to help. Through this process I have learned more about how to find ways to be impactful without having someone there to tell me what to do. This is something that I think will continue to help me as I finish my last two years at W&L.
Post-Graduation Plans: Still deciding, but will probably go to either Law School or Business School.
Favorite W&L Memory: Dancing with my family at a band party during my first Parents Weekend at W&L.
Favorite Class: Poverty 101
More About Corey:
Hometown: Exeter, NH
Majors: Economics, Chinese (EALL)
Minor: Poverty and Human Capability Studies
Extracurricular Involvement: Kathekon member, Appalachian Adventure Pre-O Leader, Venture Club, Traveller Employee, Outing Club Employee, CRUX Climbing Team founding member, Phi Gamma Delta, Johnson Scholar
Off-Campus Experiences: Spring Term 2014 in Belize, Winter 2016 abroad in New Zealand at Otago University
How did your work apply to your studies at W&L? This internship, planning included, has taught me a great deal already about being proactive and taking control of my education. The task seemed daunting when I set out to organize the internship, as I was having trouble finding contacts and organizations that I could work with. Now, three of us are here and we have built several excellent, sustainable relationships in what we hope will become a long-term destination for Shepherd interns and other W&L organizations. We envision working with groups from the Generals Development Initiative (a microfinance loan is already in the works!) to Engineers Without Borders in San Mateo and beyond.
Additionally, its easy to talk about the intricacies of poverty in a classroom setting (Professor Pickett is unparalleled in his ability to demonstrate the complex nature of poverty), but it is another thing entirely to look at it firsthand, and even harder to do something about it. What can you do for families run by single mothers, who are unemployed, with five children under 10, living in shacks in San Mateo? These are the sorts of questions one comes up against when doing this sort of work, and there is no better way to wrap your head around the scope and difficulty of helping the impoverished.
What was the most unexpected aspect of your Shepherd Internship experience? The near-universal friendliness of the people we encountered during our survey of San Mateo. Upon learning we weren’t affiliated with the Belizean government, people were helpful, patient and always smiling. We even had “the Boss Man”, a huge Belizean man who owns a compound deep in San Mateo, offer to barbeque for us if we would return the next day. In the first day of surveying, I was genuinely nervous making the treacherous approach to the doors of some of the houses, but by the third day I was attempting to conduct interviews in Spanish, petting guard dogs and conversing with the people about their living conditions. I hold the people of San Mateo in extraordinarily high esteem following our survey, for their friendly nature and their refusal to submit to despondency in the face of often terrible living conditions.
Post-Graduation Plans: Unknown at this time, but I plan on finding an internship in China next summer that should guide my decision. Regardless, I love to travel and hope to see and live in as many places as I can.
Favorite Class: Professor Eastwood’s new class: Culture, Neighborhoods and Poverty. By extension, every course I have taken in the Shepherd minor. The professors and student alike have been nothing short of fantastic, and they showed me an academic passion I wasn’t aware I had. Nowhere else have I found my personal and academic interests overlapping so consistently, and Professor Eastwood’s class in particular was an incredible chance to explore urban poverty through a unique and personal lens.
Favorite W&L Activity: Anything James Dick has his hands in is guaranteed to be a good time. Trip Leader training is a blast, as are the pre-orientation hikes. Everything from climbing competitions at our bouldering wall to the break trips to the Everglades and beyond. If you haven’t been on an Outing Club trip yet, you are missing an essential part of the W&L experience.
Advice for prospective or first-year students? W&L offers wonderful opportunities in quantities that approach absurdity. By the time I graduate, I will have been all over the world, worked side by side with brilliant professors, hiked some of the best stretches of the Appalachian Trail, rafted the toughest whitewater in the country, and countless other things. If you feel bored or complacent, try something you haven’t done before. Find friends who have different interests than you do; they will lead you to places you never imagined, and I promise you will leave W&L with more memories and meaningful experiences than are possible to express.
More About Josh:
Hometown: Shoreline, WA
Major: Business Administration
Extracurricular Involvement: Outing Club, Venture Club, General Development Initiative
Off-Campus Experiences: Spring Terms abroad in Argentina, Spain, and the Caribbean. Internship summer after my freshmen year at Holy Trinity College, Mar Del Plata, Argentina. Internship with the microfinance organization, the General Development Initiative, in Quito, Ecuador the summer after my sophomore year.
Why did you apply for this particular internship? I applied for this internship so that I could develop a more grounded understanding of the poverty issues the world is dealing with today and make a tangible positive impact using the skills I have learned at W&L.
How did your work apply to your studies at W&L? Economic development has been the focus of my studies at W&L. One of the ways that can be applied in the real world to help people is through micro-finance and the development of socially minded enterprises. In my internship I have had opportunities to work with growing organizations and pursue possibilities in financing small businesses. Through hands on work I have developed a better understanding of the challenges and practicalities of such endeavors.
Post-Graduation Plans: I’ll be taking life as it comes.
Favorite W&L Memory: While in my second year at Washington and Lee I took a political philosophy class with five other students that met at 9:00 in the morning three times a week. Many of our classes were held at our professor’s house where he would provide us with breakfast foods, coffee, and tea. Sipping coffee and chatting with my classmates and professor on these mornings are the best memories I have at W&L.
Advice for prospective or first-year students? Take risks and explore things that are unfamiliar to you. The things that have made the greatest impact on me at school were the ones I previously knew nothing about!